This is the first part of a four or five-part series (I’m still working on the last post/posts, we’ll see how long it becomes), written about our time in Nuwakot, Nepal, volunteering with the disaster relief organization, All Hands Volunteers. Also, more photos below.
Bimala is the matriarch of a farming family in the rural region of Nuwakot in Nepal. Like other families in area, she and her family works the land, mostly rice fields, around their home in Nuwakot. Like most farmers in the region, they work hard on the land and have just enough to get by. When the April 25, 2015 earthquake hit, Bimala and her twelve-year old daughter, Maya, were in their home, doing chores. The house collapsed in on top of and around them, trapping the two of them under chunks of concrete and rock. Rebar from one of the concrete pieces pierced through Maya’s shoulder. Their neighbors dug them out from under the rubble and took Maya to the nearest medical clinic. Luckily, they were able to remove the rebar, leaving a scar in its place. Their house and everything in it – clothes, beds, and all other material positions – were destroyed. Another neighbor let the family build a temporary home next to their house on their land, across from the rubble pile that had once been their home. Life and work continued after the earthquake. The fields still needed tending and mouths needed to be fed, life goes on and left little time for rebuilding.
Ten months after the April earthquake, All Hands Volunteers (AHV) began work on clearing the rubble of Bimala’s house. The project would take eight days and I joined the project on the sixth day, helping to remove dirt, concrete chunks, and rocks, to take down what remained of the walls inside the house (walls that once stretched from floor to ceiling were now less than three feet tall) while preserving as many of the bricks inside them so that they could be used again, create a pile a rubble stockpile, setting aside a pile of whole bricks (broken bricks were tossed with the rock and concrete), and removing the dirt from the house and spreading it over the potholes in the road. At the end of the project, we had cleared off the concrete foundation and the porch.
Bimala’s house is one valley over from the base and we were driven to the site with all our tools each morning and back to the base in the late afternoon. School kids would call out their greetings to us in the morning as they walked passed us working. We would take lunch breaks inside Bimala’s temporary house, where she served us dahl-bhat (lentils and rice) and curried cauliflower. The second half of lunch was spent relaxing near the river that ran behind the rice fields on the other side of the road from her house.
Bimala, Maya, and Bimala’s two year old granddaughter (from her older married daughter), Malaika, would come visit us when we took our morning and afternoon breaks, bringing us tea and a snack in the morning and in the afternoon. They always came with smiles, checking on how all the work was progressing. Maya would chase Malaika around the road, near the front of the house, playing with the toddler. Eventually, the older girl would catch the laughing younger girl and pull her up for a hug. Sometimes, the older girl would walk around with the younger, together looking at the progress of the work. The way Maya and Malaika interacted, with the older one chasing after the younger and carrying the younger around, both smiling and laughing, reminded me of two of my nieces, with about the same age difference, and how they play and interact together. In a blink of my eye, I could see my nieces playing there, in the ruins of a house. I imagined the roles reversed, my family surviving a natural disaster and losing all material positions and their house (without insurance or money to find or build a new house), and I could feel the impact of what we were doing by removing the rubble and helping a family to rebuild. I could see the impact in the girls’ face, in their smiles, when they watched us.
On the last day, we pushed hard to finish. All the volunteers were on their best rubble game and the patriarch of the family was with us for most of the afternoon, helping us wrap up little details of where to put extra dirt and some usable wooden frames we found in the rubble.
The excitement of finishing was palpable in the volunteers and in the community. Once, in the morning, a bus full of people stopped in front of the house, shouted “Thank you!” in English before moving on. Later, one of the neighbors walked up to Potter, one of the volunteers from England, and started asking questions in Nepali. Luckily, Mamata, a college student volunteer from Kathmandu, was there to translate. “Why would you travel all the way just to help us?” he asked Potter (through Mamata). He was baffled by strangers who would travel a long distance to help and also thankful for all the work. He offered Potter a cigarette and the two men sat down together to talk.
When the work was completed, the patriarch disappeared into his house and returned with paint to bless all the volunteers, family members, and anyone else around. It was a celebration. It was the end of the work day when he finished blessing us an, so with flowers in our hair and paint on our faces, we packed up, loaded the van, said our good byes to the family, and drove back to the base.
As we drove away, I looked back, through the van’s back window for one last view of the cleared foundation and saw the family hugging each other, crying and smiling. For ten months, the rubble stood in place of where their home had once been, a reminder of the nightmare of being trapped under the crushing weight and being pierced by metal, and of losing a home and everything in it. Now, it was cleared and ready for the family to rebuild. It was the beginning of something new and leaving behind what had happened. Then, I looked further up the street, I saw the neighbors approaching, with food dishes. The neighbors who helped them during and after the earthquake were also there to celebrate with them the new beginning. A loving display of community.
I find myself thinking back to Bimala’s house and it haunts me, in a beautiful way. If a horrible event can haunt someone, can an event filled with love and goodness also be haunting? Maybe it haunts me because it’s a vision of love being put into action. Maybe it’s the way the community members love and support each other and/or maybe it’s the way the volunteers were driven to travel long distances, walk out of their comfort zones, and do back-breaking labor to help people they don’t know. In a world where the media sells stories of terrorism and death, there’s hope in being reminded that there are loving, good, self-sacrificing people. Words still fail me in describing why it haunts me.
While people are capable of horrible acts of violence, they are also capable of amazing acts of love and self-sacrifice. I saw this in Nuwakot, at Bimala’s house. I saw it in the volunteers who traveled long distances to help people they have never met and in the neighbors who rescued Bimala and her family and supported them from the disaster to the rebuilding process. The best part is being reminded that Nuwakot isn’t the only place where this happens. I have had the honor of working with lots of loving, self-sacrificing people other places in the world, including my hometown. So, thank you to all those people out there who sacrifice their time, money, and (sometimes) health loving others and working hard to make the world better a better place. Cheers to you.
Happy Humanitarian Day 2016!
If you are interested in donating to the Nuwakot Project with All Hands Volunteers, you can click here. I can personally attest that they are doing some great work in Nepal.
Some names were changed. Now, more pictures.